recovering (re-connecting) from the worst day

Have you ever had a day that you knew you would never be the same after?  When the world as you knew it was forever altered?  Those days never start out radically different, nor with obvious warning signs.  Even if they did, how can you ever be prepared for what The Fresh Prince once mused, “Now, this is a story all about how my life got flipped-turned upside down…”

When we encounter tragedy or trauma—the flipped-turned upside down moments—our brain and body go into survival mode.  Whether that survival is hyper arousal with focus and activity, or hypo arousal with lethargy and meandering, both serve the purpose of coping with the whirlwind of out-of-our-control change.  Note that these responses are an automatic survival instinct. This—the sympathetic nervous system—is faster and stronger than logic.

So, when I encounter those main characters in scripture who get it so obviously wrong, I remember that I am related to them in this aspect of our humanity and I can offer grace.

For instance, think about the biggest betrayal of Jesus. It wasn’t Judas’ betrayal, but rather Peter’s denial of knowing Jesus after his arrest.  Peter had dedicated his life to what he thought he knew, how he thought his world would work with Jesus.  So how could one of his closest friends be so un-heroic, so human? But if we put ourselves in Peter’s shoes on that day, I think his response makes a little more sense.

This is from Luke 22:54-62:

Then seizing Jesus, they led him away and took him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. 54 

Jesus and his disciples had just been walking and praying in Gethsemane when suddenly soldiers armed with swords and clubs show up in the garden to arrest Jesus.  I’m sure there was a lot of adrenaline pumping through Peter’s system then, activating a fight or flight response, yet Jesus rebukes him for instinctually fighting back.

Peter likely felt all the human emotions that come with trauma and major disruption: shock, fear, confusion, terror, anger.  I can imagine him panicked, mind spinning with questions that aren’t really questions.  “What is happening!  How do I survive this night! What even matters anymore!”

He was also uncomfortably cold. In his need for warmth, Peter goes to the fire.

And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them.55 A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with him.”56 

From the image we get of Peter in other parts of scripture, I am guessing he leans toward hyper arousal—impulsive movement—as opposed to shutting down in this moment. I can imagine him shaking with cold and cortisol, desperately trying to make sense of what just occurred, hands tapping his temples, his anxious mind desperately searching for answers and terrified of the unknown. It is this distress and sense of danger that arouses a heightened state of survival, causing him to disavow Jesus in an attempt at self-preservation.

 But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know him,” he said.57

(I know when I am emotionally dysregulated, I don’t give attuned, well-reasoned logical answers.)

 A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.”58

“Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean.”59 Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

The same scenario repeats itself a few times.  That is what usually happens, isn’t it?   We find ourselves experiencing the same pattern of stressors again and again and like Peter, we unconsciously respond basically the same way every time.  But then something happened that woke Peter up.

Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. 60 The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter.61

Have you ever imagined what Jesus’ eyes “said” in this look?  Do you notice the lens in which you see Jesus looking at you?  What kind of “being seen” wakes you up by calming you down?  My guess is that Jesus didn’t roll his eyes in disgust and frustration or lay shaming eyes on him.  Instead, I imagine a look that said he knew Peter and communicated a deep love, even right in the midst of that chaotic moment. , a look that overrode his fear and brought Peter into a new deeper reality- a reality of even though this doesn’t make sense, I am still with you and you can trust me.

Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown me three times.” 61

When you get it wrong, what look of Jesus would calm you and bring you back to your deeper senses?  What slows down the sympathetic nervous system (the automatic system/instinct that is designed to protect us) and engages the parasympathetic system?

 And he went outside and wept bitterly.62

Peter’s response is grief, a sobering release of all that he was holding. Like Peter, we can only do that after we have been truly seen by safe eyes, by a look that does not judge.  We can only reconnect to our true self once our fear has been calmed and we feel safe enough.  Do you know that look?



Kurt Zuiderveen joined The Barnabas Center in 2008. Kurt earned his bachelor’s from Grand Valley State in Michigan and his master’s in counseling in 2004 from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. He is married to April and they have three children. Kurt divides his time between our main office in Charlotte and our office in Davidson.

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